Have you ever been in a war zone? Have you ever crossed the front lines in a major city, passing a pile of rubble with a child’s toy nearby, the decaying foot of a woman protruding, knowing from the smell and setting what lies underneath? Have you ever visited a peaceful Christian village that may have lived under a dictatorship but was at least protected with families and a growing middle class, and later found it destroyed by a radical group our government trained, the people slaughtered, their daughters enslaved, all as part of an effort to overthrow that harsh but stable government? Ever regain consciousness, wracked with pain, realizing you’ve been thrown through the air from a terrorist bomb that probably killed everyone around you?
I know damn well what war is like – I’ve been in them on four continents. And it haunts me. If there is any truth in war it is that innocent people caught in the middle pay the highest price. War is something to be avoided – and that requires understanding why they start. Yes, there are circumstances where war is justified, but starting them – or triggering them by goading others in to them – should be a last resort, not just another policy option. Avoiding wars – or properly prosecuting them if we have to – requires understanding the other side.
Understanding isn’t agreement. Understanding isn’t justification. Don’t doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is catastrophically wrong. But it is understandable when viewed from their perspective. Understanding that is essential to create good policy and solve problems.
Putin isn’t Hitler, and the comparisons to 1930’s Europe are way overblown on many levels. It’s a dangerous and toxic analogy because once you invoke it there is no need for further discussion: the other side is evil and must be destroyed. Make no mistake, Russia under Putin is oppressive. But as far as I know Russia isn’t engaged in genocide, their ideology (while it does have Russian supremacist elements) is primarily based on power and control of resources, not on some insane vision of a pure future based on the annihilation of other people. The rhetoric has become increasingly disturbing all around, and this doesn’t help. Russia isn’t even engaging in human rights abuses and supporting dangerous ideologies that rise to the level of, say, our good friends Saudi Arabia. So stop it with the Hitler comparisons.
Russia and Putin sure as hell aren’t warm and fuzzy. My key point is had we conducted ourselves differently, I feel Russia would have evolved over time into a more open democratic society. Putin and Russia had pursued a fairly pragmatic foreign policy until recent years – it didn’t become openly hostile and expansionist until pushed beyond red lines they stated well in advance. Again, by refusing to discuss and consider accommodations to Russia’s reasonable requests over the last 30 years, we created a situation where Russia felt it had little option but to upgrade an existing conflict (the conflict the West has been escalating against Russia actively for at least 15 of those 30 years) from an asymmetric low level conflict to a full blown kinetic shooting war. In short, the war didn’t start last week, last year, or even in 2014. It started in 1991.
Some have said that I’m echoing Russian Propaganda (while themselves often echoing Western Propaganda). Well, if the Kremlin says the sky is blue that doesn’t make it wrong; If something is true, it is true, and the fact that the West is dismissive of it is potentially a reason behind the aggression. That doesn’t justify the aggression, but it makes it understandable. I probably do overplay the Russian point of view – even when I disagree with it – because I am so frustrated it is not given the attention it deserves because even if we don’t believe, they either do, or are using it as a negotiating tactic, and if we don’t address it the problems can’t be solved. As one example, reflexively saying “there are no Nazis running Ukraine” just because Russia is exaggerating their role denies the fact that Eastern Europe hasn’t ever really come to terms with that past, and in fact there are some pretty unsavory elements who need to be rooted out. That’s not justification for the invasion – but it is an indictment of our policies that supported and encouraged groups like Right Sector and Azoz.
This all boils down to understanding and developing sane policies in a very dangerous and unstable world, especially understanding why those who do things we don’t like do them. Figuring out why people they act the way they do – and realistically assessing our responsibility and role in creating conditions that contribute to those actions – is an utterly essential part of that process.